President Obama has broad authority to reshape U.S. relations with Cuba, but Congress could impede some of his goals. (EPA/Doug Mills)

President Obama this week announced plans to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of restrictions, but lawmakers from both parties have opposed the new initiative.

The administration can act alone on certain matters when it comes to Cuba, but congressional cooperation is required for other steps. Let’s examine the president’s goals and how the limits of his authority might impede them.

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said during a briefing on Thursday that one of the first steps toward normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States will be to take part in migration talks sometime in January. The two nations have met to discuss that issue each year since 1995 as part of a Clinton administration accord, but the next meeting will include higher-level officials, Jacobson said.

The administration also plans to convert a diplomatic mission in Havana, known as the U.S. Interests Section, into a full-blown embassy.

“We can do that via an exchange of letters or of notes,” Jacobson said. “It doesn’t require a formal sort of legal treaty or agreement.”


The U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, circa 2007. (“L’Havana ambaixada EUA” by Stevenbedrick at English Wikipedia)

Congress will eventually have a chance to weigh on the status of the facility because it controls funding, and several Republicans have already expressed plans to prevent the change. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said this week that they would try to bar funds for a U.S. embassy in Cuba.

Jacobson said that conversion of the diplomatic mission could be as simple as hanging a new sign on it.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a career diplomat, heads the Interests Section in Havana. He took up the post in August after serving in various State Department roles, including most recently as a representative with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

Rubio indicated this week that he would try to block confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. “I reserve the right to do everything within the rules of the Senate to prevent that sort of individual from ever even coming up for a vote,” he said.

Jacobson said nominating an ambassador will not be “one of the first things that we get to.” She added, “I can’t tell you exactly when that’ll happen.”

Regardless, the administration plans to begin “high-level exchanges and visits between our two governments” within the next few months, according to a White House fact sheet. The initial efforts will involve pushing for reforms on human rights, internet access, visas and treatment of migrants who have been returned to the island, among other issues, Jacobson said.

The United States and Cuba will also begin working together on issues, including counternarcotics, environmental protection, migration, and human trafficking, according to the fact sheet.


A man waves a Cuban flag inside the sea during the 12th Annual Rotilla Festival in Jibacoa beach, Cuba. (AP/Javier Galeano)

Additionally, Obama has ordered the State Department to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism to determine whether the nation should be removed from that list. He has said he wants to see the results within six months.

The analysis will look at issues such as whether Cuba participated in or supported acts of international terrorism over the past six months and whether the nation’s government has renounced the use of terrorism, according to Jacobson.

The administration plans to share the report with lawmakers as “an informing of Congress, not a request for approval or denial,” Jacobson said.

The results of the review will help the White House determine whether to ease sanctions against Cuba, although removing the restrictions altogether would require congressional approval.

“The embargo that has been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation,” Obama said while announcing his plans on Wednesday.

Six laws dictate U.S. sanctions on Cuba. They range from the Cuban Assets Control Regulations Act of 1963 to the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, according to a Treasury Department report.

Obama said Wednesday that he intends to ease the restrictions that affect travel and trade. Jacobson clarified Thursday that those actions would take place through regulatory changes.

The administration has said it will allow Americans to send up to $8,000 a year to Cuba and drop a licensing requirement for the transactions. It also plans to “empower the nascent Cuban private sector” by authorizing exports of building materials, agricultural equipment and good for entrepreneurs,” according to the fact sheet.

Obama also said he will allow exports of food, medicine and medical products as well as increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba.

The administration also plans to authorize licensed U.S. travelers to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, with a combined limit of $100 for tobacco and alcohol, according to a White House fact sheet.

Republicans are not alone in opposing the president’s plans. Several Democrats have criticized his new policy as well, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), the only member of Congress to have lived on the island nation during the Fidel Castro era.

During an interview with NPR on Thursday, Sires said lifting restrictions against Cuba would be a mistake. “The human rights in Cuba are horrendous, so we don’t have too many weapons other than the sanctions,” he said.

Obama said Wednesday that his administration was “cutting that burden loose to reach for a better future.”

But Sires argued that the United States has already tried that approach with other communist nations, namely China and Vietnam.

“That’s not the type of country that I want for Cuba,” the congressman said. “I don’t want a society that they cannot express themselves. I don’t want to say they have no freedom of press. I want a Cuba that’s a democracy where people can express their different feelings.”